Thousands of young people in the UK have just started university, and for most of them, it will be their first time living away from home. For those who suffer from food allergies, this can mean more than just learning how to cook or do their own washing; it also means learning to manage their allergy independently as an adult.
Although universities are now doing more to help students manage their allergies and diets, those individuals who do have allergies should also put plans in place to help them navigate university life safely. In this article, we share the latest research on food allergies in young people in particular and offer advice on the best ways to manage food allergies as a student.
According to statistics collated by Allergy UK, over 20% of the UK population is affected by one or more allergic disorders. In 2012, it was found that there had been a 615% increase in the rate of hospital admissions for anaphylaxis over the previous twenty years.
What this shows us is that more and more people are suffering from potentially life-threatening food-related allergies. This can be a particular problem for students moving into university halls and having to share kitchens or rooms with others who might not necessarily understand the potential dangers behind food allergens.
On top of this, students with food allergies might find themselves suddenly taking on the full responsibility for managing their own allergies, which can be problematic in an environment where they may feel the pressures from their peers to try new things. In fact, a survey conducted by the Clinical and Translational Allergy Journal found that, out of a study of 520 young people aged 15-25, only 66% reported carrying their epinephrine auto-injector everywhere they go.
Angela Simpson, professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Manchester, believes that university students can struggle to manage their allergies when they leave home, because "It's about mums no longer supervising what they eat, it's about drinking a bit too much alcohol and not wanting to embarrass themselves if they can't eat somewhere when everyone else wants to.".
Although there are pressures to have a ‘normal’ university experience, many universities themselves are looking at ways in which they can support students with food allergies and nutrition in general. In fact, many studies have found that nutrition affects student achievement in school – those who receive wellness care and healthy meals throughout their education were four times more likely to graduate from college.
All UK universities now have policies regarding food allergies and what they provide to cater for students with food allergies. Some universities in America, like Gonzaga, Whitworth and Eastern Washington University (EWU), are taking a new approach to campus dining - offering healthy foods to suit everyone, nutritional counselling, allergy-free foods stocked in the dorms and nut-free food processing.
There are plenty of things to think about when you’re living independently at university, especially right at the start of your studies. Adding a food allergy to the mix can be a bit stressful, whether you’re cooking for yourself or trying to avoid certain ingredients whilst being catered for.
Below, we’ve identified some of the key ways you can manage food allergies in university.
One of the most important things you should do when you start university, regardless of whether you have an allergy or not, is register with the local medical practice and on-site health centre. This will help to ensure prescriptions are set up for any medication required so that you never run out of adrenaline for an auto-injector or other medication that helps you manage food allergy symptoms.
If your food allergy can cause a life-threatening reaction, think about giving a trusted adult power of attorney, in case communication is no longer possible after or during an allergic reaction.
You should also remember to always have an emergency care plan in place and leave these details with someone you trust. If you don’t have a care plan in place, you can speak to a medical professional to get advice on the best way to manage your food allergy and the best way to respond to an allergic reaction.
Cooking for yourself can be one of the biggest challenges of moving to university. Whilst many young people have a reasonable set of culinary skills, buying ingredients and cooking every meal independently can be a struggle, especially if you’re also having to avoid certain allergens.
The best way to stay on top of your nutrition and ensure that you eat a healthy diet without any allergens is to plan your meals. Create a list of dishes that are safe and that you can cook, and then plan when you’re going to eat these every week. You can save money and time by batch-cooking things like curries, stews and sauces, and then freezing and reheating these.
By planning your meals in advance, you can avoid being stuck in a situation where you don’t have any allergen-friendly food available. Creating a meal plan also makes it easier for you to make a shopping list and stick to it, avoiding impulsive purchasing of any products that might contain allergens.
Communal cooking is something that many people enjoy in university, but as an allergy sufferer, this can present risks. Make sure that the people cooking for or with you are aware of your allergies, and don’t shy away from double-checking ingredients or asking them exactly what each dish contains. This can be daunting when you’re trying to make a first impression, but it’s vital and avoids an allergic reaction.
If you’re staying in university accommodation that offers catering, you might be worried about the options they have available for students with food allergies. We recommend that you read through the university’s policy on food allergies and what they do to help – they might provide specialised foods, ingredient lists or dining plans for those with allergies.
Plenty of university accommodation involves sharing a kitchen often with a lot of people that will be cooking a lot of different things. This can present a cross-contamination risk for food allergy sufferers, as ingredients can get mixed up and people might borrow items and utensils from each other without asking.
If you have a food allergy, you should communicate any food allergies and their severity to your roommates and friends, so they understand how to prevent cross-contamination. It may also be a good idea to share the emergency care plan with them and demonstrate how to use epinephrine auto-injectors in case there is an accident.
To prevent allergen cross-contamination, it might be a good idea to have a clearly identifiable set of cooking utensils and ask your housemates not to use them. This way, you can be sure that your equipment is clean and very unlikely to contain any trace of certain allergens.
Some people have food allergies that are so severe, they cannot be in the same environment as the ingredient they are allergic to. This can be a real problem in shared kitchens, as someone buying or using an allergen can be enough to trigger an allergic reaction. In these cases, it's really important to communicate what your housemates need to do or avoid to prevent a reaction, and see whether the university offers any support or advice for students with very serious allergies.
Socialising is a massive part of the university experience, and you don’t want a food allergy to interfere with that. However, you don’t want your social life to put you at risk of experiencing an allergic reaction, so it’s important to keep this in mind during all kinds of activities and ensure you don’t end up in any risky situations.
If you’re going out for a meal or to an event, try to plan ahead to avoid unnecessary risks, ask for ingredient labels or see if events can offer diet-specific food. Also, remember to drink in moderation, as alcohol can increase risk-taking behaviour and may lead to unintentional contact with an allergen.
Although many people have one of the common food allergies, living with a severe allergy can sometimes feel like an isolating and difficult experience. You may feel restricted in what you’re able to do and misunderstood by people that won’t take your allergy seriously or respect the ingredients that you need to avoid.
You may find that the experience of having allergies in university is easier if you make friends with other people that can relate to your experiences. This provides advice and support and may make the transition to living independently feel more comfortable.
It’s also a good idea to talk to the friends you make at university and let them know the extent of your allergies. Explaining food allergy symptoms and the signs of food allergies, as well as what to do in the case of anaphylaxis, can help you feel more confident that your friends will know what to do if you suddenly have an allergic reaction.
Before you start university, you might also check if there’s a student group for those with food allergies, dietary restrictions or other medical concerns. If not, start a group yourself or find support online.
Fourteen main allergens make up the most common food allergies. These are cereals containing gluten, milk, eggs, peanuts, soybeans, tree nuts, fish, crustaceans, molluscs, celery, lupin, mustard, sesame, and sulphites.
Some of the most common symptoms of an allergic reaction to food are rashes, itching skin or mouth, wheezing, coughing, stomach pains and feeling dizzy or lightheaded. Anaphylactic shock is a more serious reaction, and includes similar symptoms but can also lead to severe breathing problems and becoming unconscious.
Food allergies are usually treated with antihistamines, which is a medication that blocks histamine which causes allergic reactions. Severe allergic reactions are also sometimes treated with epinephrine, which causes your muscles to relax and makes it easier to breathe until proper medical help can be given.
Food allergies have a big impact on people’s lives, especially during times of transition like heading off to university. The impacts of food allergens on food allergy sufferers are still not well known amongst the general public, but there are plenty of steps that young people with allergies can take to improve their experience and keep themselves safe.
If you work in a food-handling role or just want to find out more about how to be aware of the risk that allergens present, we offer an online ‘Food Allergy Awareness’ course to help you prevent potentially life-threatening accidents.